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(3rd LD) S. Korea, U.S. to launch working group on N. Korea in November

All Headlines 16:41 October 31, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with government official's briefing; CHANGES headline, dateline)

SEOUL/WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States will launch a joint working group next month to coordinate their strategy on North Korea, a government official in Seoul said Wednesday, hours after the State Department's announcement.

The allies agreed to establish the working group for "regular, systemic and formal" communication, mainly on denuclearization and peace regime efforts, the foreign ministry official told reporters.

"(We) plan to launch it next month," he said on condition of anonymity.

The deal was reached during U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun's trip to Seoul earlier this week, although the idea was floated "months earlier."

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun (L) meets with his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, in Seoul on Oct. 29, 2018. (Yonahp)

It reflects Seoul's bid for closer consultations with Washington ahead of a second summit between President Donald Trump and the North's leader Kim Jong-un, expected to happen early next year.

The Trump administration wants South Korea to implement sanctions on the North despite its push for inter-Korean economic projects.

Concerns have grown about a mismatch between an improvement in Seoul-Pyongyang relations and the pace of Washington-Pyongyang dialogue.

There's a view that such an unprecedented working group of the allies on the North Korea issue is aimed at narrowing differences over the South's pursuit of easing sanctions on the North in order to facilitate the denuclearization process.

For instance, the South is reportedly waiting for the U.S. to okay its plan to re-connect railways across the border with the North amid worries that it may undermine sanctions on the communist nation.

The State Department broke the news of the working group first, briefing the press on the outcome of Biegun's fourth visit to South Korea as Washington's point man on Pyongyang.

"As part of that, the two governments agreed on establishing a new working group that would further strengthen our close coordination on our diplomacy, on our denuclearization efforts, on sanctions implementation and inter-Korean cooperation that comply with United Nations sanctions," its deputy spokesperson, Robert Palladino, said at a press briefing.

There was no related announcement by the South Korean government.

Several hours later, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae confirmed that the working group is in the making.

Then, officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Biegun and Seoul's top nuclear envoy, Lee Do-hoon, talked about the matter on Tuesday night.

It was just a matter of timing for each side to make public the agreement without a joint press release, the official said.

Lee and Biegun will lead the new communication channel, he added.

Regarding media-driven speculation about a possible rift between the allies on North Korea, he questioned the need for a "routine speed adjustment."

"It's structurally difficult to make progress on one track and do so on the other without even one inch of gap," the official pointed out. "I think we need to fill the gap with mutual trust and communication."

He cited three rounds of inter-Korean summit talks this year alone and brisk follow-up negotiations, adding that the North and the U.S. appear to be in close back-channel consultations as well.

He expected the two sides to hold working-level talks as agreed during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang in September.

Biegun is supposed to meet with the North's Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui but no specific schedule has been fixed.

Pompeo may also hold talks with Kim Yong-chol, a top North Korean communist party official, again in New York in early November, according to local diplomatic sources.

"I have no information to share about when or where they will meet each other. Even so, I don't think it's replacing the (agreed-upon) working-level talks between Biegun and Choi Son-hui," the official said.

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